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|New Mexico State's decision to stay in the WAC when everyone else was leaving gives the tattered conference at least one name team to build its future around.|
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Next up: trickle-down realignment in the Western Athletic Conference.
Inequality is a defining characteristic of college basketball. Heck, it might be the defining quality. Without the massive gulf between college basketball's haves and have-nots, the NCAA tournament wouldn't be so captivating. Inequality gave us Cinderella. It has its pluses.
It also skews every discussion about the sport. We forget just how many of Division I's basketball schools have less in common with Kentucky than Division II. We forget how diverse the landscape really is. We forget about the little guys -- at least until 160 of them defeat a landmark stipend proposal, to name just one example.
It should be no surprise, then, that the conference-realignment headlines had the same selective focus. For the past two years, the Division I elite have jockeyed and clamored for spots in bigger, better leagues, each new development breathlessly covered on a hourly basis. Less well-known is the way realignment has trickled down to even the smallest, least monied leagues. No mid-major league offers a more instructive example than the Western Athletic Conference.
The WAC you'll see in 2013-14 looks almost nothing like the WAC of last season or years prior. The Mountain West vacuumed up Utah State (the WAC hoops standard-bearer for much of the past decade, featuring one of the best home crowds in the country) and San Jose State. Denver took off for the Summit League. Louisiana Tech and UTSA joined a hollowed-out Conference USA. Texas State and UT Arlington found a home in the Sun Belt. That's -- count 'em -- seven teams from a previously 10-team league that will no longer be in the conference in 2013-14. And next summer, when Idaho makes its official move to the Big Sky, that'll be eight. "Decimation" is the word that comes to mind. Nothing but the bones of the carcass remain.
But there is some good news. Marvin Menzies' New Mexico State program -- the WAC's NCAA tournament representative for three of the past four seasons -- stayed put. And while there's no question the WAC's quality has taken a significant hit, it has re-established itself as a home for programs that desperately needed a conference. Chicago State is a perfect example: After years spent as a guarantee-game punching bag in the loosely affiliated Great West, Chicago State finally has a league it can sell to lower-tier local prospects. Cal State Bakersfield was an independent; Grand Canyon is graduating from Division II.
There are dozens of stories here, stories of players and programs previously relegated to the sport's lowest caste finding their footing in a league that needs them every bit as much as the reverse. It might not make a whole lot of geographical sense, and it might not always offer the best basketball. But it is a fascinating realignment case study worth checking in on throughout the season.